Energy Issue: THE WINDS OF CHANGE ; A Turbine in Every Village? Animal-Waste Power Plants? the End of the National Grid? How, and Where, We Produce Energy Is Set for Radical and Surprising Change
Hadley, Words Christopher, The Independent (London, England)
A force five blows through the old market town of Swaffham in Norfolk. In the poetry of the Beaufort scale, small trees begin to sway, and crested wavelets form on inland waters, but here the breeze is measured by the rising murmur of three blades larger than jumbo jet wings that harvest the wind. They are turning at a steady 20 revolutions a minute, but their tips whip by at over 100mph; it is a scale and motion without frame of reference, and it might be sorcery that as they turn, like some ancient primum mobile, 1.3 million watts of electricity are surging down the 67-metre tower to pepper the dusk with light and boil the water in kettles.
If local, green generation like this is the future of energy production in the UK it will require a complete reversal of the story so far. The existing National Grid of high-voltage cables, capable of carrying electricity great distances between huge power stations, was built in the Thirties to ensure security of supply. If local generators failed or demand suddenly exceeded capacity, others far away could pick up the load instantly. Today in the UK, there are 30,000 or so pylons carrying 8,500 miles of overhead lines. Roughly 10,000MW of electricity is always flowing from the North, where most of the fuel is, to the South, where most of the demand is.
Although the first giant battery storage plant is currently being built using the latest fuel cell technology, for now electricity must be used as soon as it is generated, and supply and demand has to be balanced from second to second. National Grid engineers ensure that enough generators nationwide are putting enough power into the grid - and not too much - at any moment in time. In his fascinating history of the National Grid, Power to the People, Rob Cochrane quotes one engineer who describes this incredible balancing act as "rather like being asked to prepare a cooked meal and have it ready and piping hot at the moment the guests arrive - when you can't be sure just how many are coming or precisely when they'll turn up".
Not only do the grid engineers have to respond instantly to faults, but they must study our social habits. In the Thirties it was well known that f Monday was wash day, and at 5pm there would be a surge in demand when the clothes were dry and ready for ironing - but only in good weather. Today, peak demand is around 5.30pm when office workers go home but industry is still running. Planners also try to predict peaks and lows in demand by keeping a close eye on TV schedules and national events. The highest surge in demand to date was on 11 August 1999 when people returned to their homes and offices after watching the solar eclipse, causing demand to rise by 3,000MW - equivalent to over one million kettles being switched on. The largest ever drop was by 2,700MW during the three-minute silence on 14 September last year for the victims of the terrorist attacks in New York.
The government target is for 10 per cent of electricity to come from renewable sources by 2010 and from April this year the "Renewables Obligation" will penalise electricity suppliers who aren't on target. But can local renewable energy with its unpredictable output ever hope to provide all our electricity when our use of it demands such a fast response? The UK has 40 per cent of all the wind resources in Europe - which is theoretically enough to provide our energy needs three times over. But what about security of supply? What happens when the wind stops blowing at your local turbine? It's hard to imagine that the grid will become defunct any time soon, but local wind turbines could be backed up by other renewable sources in the locality such as biomass generators (using animal and plant waste matter) which are less dependent on the weather. So what might the electricity industry look like at the turn of the next century? There are clues all around us, but sometimes you have to look hard for them ...
It is the largest renewable power station in Europe, but camouflaged in tree-brown paint in the midst of Thetford Forest, with a 310ft chimney stack the colour of East Anglian skies, Fibrowatt's biomass plant quietly and innocuously pumps a steady flow of electricity into the local grid sufficient to power 90,000 homes. You have to get very close to know it's there, and it's the smell escaping from the fuel hall that gives the game away. The turbine here is run on 1,500 tonnes of agricultural waste a day - 80 per cent chicken shit, or rather poultry manure from barn-reared chickens and turkeys (manure from battery hens is too wet). Emptied from lorries into hoppers, it is processed through the fuel hall to ensure the correct mix before being conveyed into the furnace. Inside, balls of flaming dung spin from left to right in the updraft, reaching temperatures of 850C to produce the steam that drives the turbine that powers the generator.
Rupert Fraser, vice-chairman of Fibrowatt, says there are major benefits to the local community from such a plant. "The beauty," he says, "is we can provide electricity to a catchment area roughly equivalent to our fuel supply - that's true sustainability."
Poultry rearing has trebled in the last 30 years because chickens are incredibly efficient at processing food. Give them 2lbs of food and they will gain around 1lb of weight and produce 1lb of manure. But nearby agricultural land hasn't trebled and is already saturated with waste phosphates and nitrogens. What to do with all that manure? At Thetford, the biomass plant burns half-a-million tonnes of it a year, a third of all poultry manure in the UK. And while the dung is being burnt, and electricity is being produced, the ash is collected and later sold all over the country as an extremely concentrated fertiliser. "Biomass restores the natural balance," says Fraser. At the same time it provides an additional market for local agricultural produce and helps improve local farming practices.
For Fraser this is the future of electricity, but he says the Government needs to do a lot more to increase incentives for renewable generators. He also wants greater investment in infrastructure. "You can't achieve a f sea-change by throwing a few grains of sand into the sea," he says. "You need to treat it like the change from fossil to nuclear. The Government gets headlines when they announce a pounds 100m investment scheme but this plant alone cost pounds 70m. The market can't change the marketplace; only government can do it and, unless they do something, they aren't going to meet their own targets."
One of Fraser's big regrets is that it isn't yet economical for him to install a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) unit to use waste heat from the plant to provide hot water to the local community. That is what is happening in a renovated electricity substation on the Isle of Dogs in east London. Barkantine Heat and Power Company, a division of London Electricity's generating arm, and Tower Hamlets council, are showcasing the very latest in CHP. Water, heated by waste energy from a gas turbine, runs through 2.4km of underground mains to provide hot water on demand to the local community, including a primary school, a swimming baths and 540 homes. It's a giant, brilliant-blue, space-suit silver and spotless combi-boiler with a couple of hot water tanks the size of grain silos thrown in for good measure. The plant is controlled by computer to provide hot water on demand - and while it's doing that it produces enough electricity to power 1,000 homes. This enters the local grid and is sold under a special scheme to the hot water customers, while the surplus is sold to an electricity supplier.
Paul Grimaldi from Tower Hamlets council says that this is a true community- based project and does much to address "fuel poverty". "About 80 per cent of families are on some kind of benefits and they get hot water at pounds 1.50 a week, and the option to buy electricity at one of the cheapest tariffs in the country."
Of course, green energy doesn't necessarily mean small local generators. To meet targets of 6 per cent of energy from wind by 2010, the current capacity needs to grow from 500MW to as much as 12,000MW, hence the plans for huge wind farms on and off-shore. One such on the Isle of Lewis will generate 600MW, making it the largest in the world. But Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity, the pioneering green energy company that owns the wind turbine at Swaffham, says such projects are based on an outdated model. He wants to bring generation into communities. "At the moment the South ships its power from Scotland - how bonkers is that? Much better to have the power next to the people, to provide local jobs, so that the wind blowing past your house provides your electricity." In his vision of the future, we will build single high-technology turbines that provide power to local communities backed up by other green technologies. "If we had 30,000 wind turbines instead of 30,000 pylons - that's no bad thing."
The 67m Swaffham turbine, a 1.5MW Enercon-66, is light years ahead of the early wind turbines and alone can power the equivalent of 1,500 homes over a year, accounting for downtime. That amounts to half of Swaffham's houses, and Ecotricity is planning to build a second turbine to provide enough power for the other half.
With demand for electricity increasing by 2 per cent per annum, the necessity of ensuring that it is there when we want it, and with the constant need to balance the fluctuations in supply and demand, it's hard to imagine that we won't always need some kind of National Grid and nuclear or fossil fuel generation to avoid returning to the chaos of the pre-grid days. Even Dale Vince admits that his dream won't come to fruition in his lifetime.
Looking down from the unique viewing platform suspended beneath the nacelle, or machine house, of the Swaffham turbine, as the blades move majestically through the panorama, your attention is drawn to the Ecotech centre standing a few feet from the foot of the tower. Here a charitable foundation promotes sustainable lifestyles. Surely using energy more wisely is an important part of any future electricity system. If the generators that power our kettles are in our own backyards, maybe we'll give a little more thought to the electricity we use.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Energy Issue: THE WINDS OF CHANGE ; A Turbine in Every Village? Animal-Waste Power Plants? the End of the National Grid? How, and Where, We Produce Energy Is Set for Radical and Surprising Change. Contributors: Hadley, Words Christopher - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: February 2, 2002. Page number: 28,. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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